This oddity from famed filmmaker Fritz Lang was a one-shot affair made in France between his departure from Germany and his career in Hollywood. For years, the film only seemed to exist in a cut and non-subtitled version that was often mistakenly assumed to be the French language version of the almost never seen 1930 Frank Borzage adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s famous play. However, this 1934 Fox-Euro production is a separate entity in its own right that was recently restored to its original length and brought out for the American market.
It’s both better than its earlier reputation, which was based on the cut version, and yet still disappointing in some ways. The early scenes are probably the best part of the film, capturing the atmosphere of the story quite well. I haven’t read the Molnar play since high school, but my memory of it pretty much jives with the storyline of the film, so that’s not the problem. The difficulty lies in Lang’s depiction of heaven.
That it’s a reflection of earthly bureaucracy is fine, even if the sets are a somewhat cheesy view of heaven as a Busby Berkeley musical. It’s the heaviness of touch that blunts the work. After a fine, Cocteau-worthy opening to these scenes, the rest plays like bad burlesque. It’s hard not to think that Lang would have done better had he depicted Liliom’s (Charles Boyer) 16 years in purgatory, but those take place offscreen. The final scenes smooth this out some — even if the justification for domestic abuse is as specious as it ever was — but the touch for this kind of fantasy just seems to elude the great filmmaker.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke